Still getting it on online: queerness & technology

Cupid

Cupid’s arrow, lovestruck…you get the picture. (Motelism, 2015)

This latest blog post is adapted from a piece I wrote this week for the DEPTH research group at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. In it, I discuss the publication of my new academic article ‘Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies’ in the journal Geography Compass. If you’re interested in geographies of sexualities, queer theory or space, think of this post as a sort of primer to introduce you to some of the wordier(!) themes explored in the article itself. 

 

By way of introduction, I thought I’d borrow from my latest article to give you a snapshot of what I’ll be talking about in this blog post:

I call on contemporary scholarship to demonstrate how [mobile phone] platforms offer a way into answering larger cultural questions about cruising, queer social life, and space. I conclude that these locative digital media occupy a distinctive position in the history of queer technologies and signal a shift in how gay male online spaces are both conceptualised and experienced.

In the social sciences, theories of sex and sexuality have long been tied up in ideas of space and place. There are any number of examples we can think of, from the spaces of sex work and how these spaces are regulated or policed, to the rise (and more recently, fall) of the commercialised ‘gay village’ in the global north, which is often discussed in terms of its relations with economics and gentrification.

Trying to better understand the relationship between sex and sexuality and space is important because beyond theoretical ideas, it has an impact on how a location might influence sexual identity, practices or safety. For example, healthcare interventions for sex workers might depend on a safe space accessible from their working space. Civil rights demonstrations or an LGBTQ pride parade in a repressive political environment can be read as a temporary ‘queering’ of the orthodoxy or regime by making space for sexual difference in streets normally controlled by the mainstream. For a real-life example of this, you check out an old blog post of mine on the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida and why sexuality and space are important concepts.

My own research has focused on digital technology and sexual practices (you can read previous blog posts on it this work here and here). I have been interviewing ‘MSM’ (men who have sex with men, including but not limited to gay and bisexual men) to learn more about how recent developments in technology mean that queer male space is not just physical, but virtual too.

 Geography Compass invited me to write an article for them reviewing the history of queer male online space. I think this topic is particularly fascinating is because the social sciences have long tracked physical queer spaces, and this research is widely known; less is known about how online platforms contribute to producing or re-making queer spaces. What I specialise in is locative media – by which I mean GPS enabled mobile phone apps – that are now very popular amongst MSM to network and meet others for social and/or sexual connection. These locative apps include Tinder, Grindr and Hornet, and have a huge user base around the world. Grindr alone counts nearly 4 million users per day.

I argue that the development of mobile internet over the past decade, and the GPS abilities that are now built into even basic smartphones, strongly influence how men meet other men for relationships and sex. This in turn has an impact on ‘offline’ LGBTQ venues such as gay bars or cruising sites, as well as traditional understandings of ‘queer community’ and what that might mean. As I write in the article:

Male–male locative media can strengthen and extend social‐sexual networks, facilitating meetings with like‐minded men across a borough, district, or city. This is especially true among the users for whom a queer community is out of reach because of their isolation, whether familial, social, or geographical.

Of course, being connected to other sexual minorities through an app does not automatically constitute a community, but some users do report a sense of like-mindedness, even if this does not match up with the more established ways in which we define community.

Beyond MSM populations specifically, this idea of technology redefining community, whether for better or worse (or indeed both!) is crucial to how we understand how technology mediates human behaviour. In a public health context, technology needs to be harnessed in ways which are alert to local conditions, whether that is in terms of unequal access to technology, or an affinity (or restriction) to certain kinds of communication device. At the same time, the widespread adoption of mobile phone technology – 5 billion people worldwide now have access to mobile phones – shows that digital technology ‘on the go’ will become ever more central to daily life. The job now is to extend research carried out on mobile digital technologies and sexualities to different populations to help us understand more about how these platforms will impact on social and sexual practices in the near and distant future.

You can read the full article here and follow my Twitter updates on it (and unrelated rants about Brexit, Trump and the tabloid press hereas well as Twitter updates from the DEPTH research hub for you social scientists and public health fans out there.

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No decision about me, without me: Public involvement in health

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London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine serving 1920s Atonement vibes.

One of the interesting things in my post-doctoral research fellowship at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has been researching the social science of public health.

A priority in the delivery of health services by the NHS for some years now has been patient and public involvement in healthcare. One example of this direction in healthcare that you might have heard about is the NHS initiative ‘No decision about me, without me’ (2012 – ongoing), which seeks to put the patient at the centre of the care that they receive, with the aim of better involving them in their own healthcare when ill.

In this free, open access article that me and my colleagues recently published for the Journal of Health Design, we look at this idea of patient/public involvement via ‘co-production’ – the idea that the public gets involved in shaping their care by working together with doctors and other healthcare staff to grant all parties the best possible results. For the patients, this is good health and a feeling of being included, and for the staff, this means good relationships with those they care for and healthy, happy outcomes.

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It’s an interesting idea but not without its detractors (including for example: “Why should patients be considered ‘experts’ when that’s what doctors spend 6 years in medical school for?” “Why is the NHS so reliant on buzzwords like ‘co-production’?” “Is this kind of involvement vocabulary just another fad?”) but there is a lot that I like about the ongoing shift to think more laterally about public involvement in healthcare. As well as being a good idea in terms of hearing from less-heard voices in the healthcare system, who have historically been marginalised and as a result suffered from poorer health, the consensus from the bodies that make up the NHS and NIHR (National Institute for Health Research) is broadly that these co-production approaches make a lot of sense in the modern hospital system. As well as improving patient-clinician relationships, patients feel empowered in having a say in the care they receive, and some outcomes also point to cost efficiencies. This is, of course, vitally important in a political climate which has sadly seen the NHS increasingly positioned as the albatross around the government’s neck, no matter the lip service they pay it when they’re put on the spot. Plus ça change…

Either way, as a research field this kind of public involvement work is interesting for a whole range of audiences, and though the case study we use is our own ongoing research on young people with sickle cell disease (you can read more about ‘This Sickle Cell Life‘ here), the idea of ‘slow’ co-production, which emphasises quality, qualitative fieldwork that gets space to ‘breathe’, can be extrapolated to any number of different research activities that involve the public. And by involvement we’re talking here not just about the public as what has been seen traditionally as the passive research subject, something to be examined to aid in building our knowledge of social life; but in more meaningful terms as active collaborators in thinking about their care. Indeed, why not? Anything that can deepen people’s engagement with health and how they access and receive care has to be a good thing, right?

The article is free, open access and – rare indeed! – really quite short. Check it out if you fancy, here. Whilst I’m talking about public health, you might have seen that the NHS is turning 70! You can read about some of its amazing work over the past 7 decades here and here, plus check out the debate on Twitter here with the hashtag #NHS70LSHTM.

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Early Career Researchers & the academic brand

Just a short post this week to draw your attention to this interesting blog post about academic ‘selves’ in the modern university.

Gillian Rose always writes such interesting pieces about gender, labour and careers, and this is no different. Lots of readers have focused on Rose’s paragraph on the ‘personal brand’, and I agree that that’s a fascinating idea.

In a media-oriented stage for public outreach, having a kind of academic brand seems to me to be crucial (even if thinking about how to self-define as such can be a headache):

1. figure out your ‘brand’. Ok, so it’s a horrible term to use, ‘brand’, but it’s a question I once heard a colleague ask of candidates at a job interview and I think if you do figure yours out, it’s a very useful way to simplify lots of decisions you’ll face. Your brand summarises the kind of geographer/academic that you are or you aspire to be. What’s your key research area and how does it contribute to the wider (sub)discipline? What sort of teaching do you want to be superb at? What sort of administrator or manager are you, or would you like to be? What are you most committed to? What fires you up, what do you loathe? But also, what sort of colleague are you? Are you a loner, a collaborator, a leader? Work those things out and you have some priorities to focus on.

All these thoughts/provocations/considerations are doubly important for us early career researchers. We have to think about networking, teamwork and fostering new partnerships, all whilst competing with the rest of the ‘pack’ of fellow starting-out academics. At the same time we are encouraged (and of course want to!) forge and promote a spirit of collaboration with our early-career-researcher counterparts, who are our friends as well as colleagues and in a strange way, sometimes competitors too.

You can read the rest here, and it’s got some great advice. At Exeter, Sam Kinsley’s blog also has some good reflections on the topic, which you can read here.

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Ph.Done

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I’m Done (2014), Motelism

Good news – on Friday I passed my PhD viva, making me Dr. S.Miles!

A viva is kind of an oral test, held over several hours, with an examiner from your university and an external examiner chosen because of their expertise in the subject. There’s a lot of mythology surrounding the viva, which is the stuff of nightmares, but in reality the aim of a viva is to prove that you did the work yourself, you are capable of the complex thinking of doctoral-level academia, and that you can defend methodological/theoretical/empirical choices you made over the months and years you conducted the project.

I think some of the mythology of the viva comes from the fact that no two exams are the same, and when pushed for advice on how to succeed in the room, there’s really nothing more helpful to suggest than knowing your work, finding it interesting, and being interested in what the experts want to feed back about it. My examiners are academic heroes of mine but nevertheless they left no stone unturned and asked some really difficult questions. This was no bad thing: it offers kind of a rare opportunity to think about all the big picture stuff that you don’t get to do much in the rest of your life. All the same, I reckon I lost more fluids than a water cooler over the course of the morning. Worth it though!

The result: I’m able to show how dating apps are significant cultural objects that can say a lot about sex and relationships, technology and urban life. Here is a condensed thesis abstract, to show what I researched:

Whilst the introduction of the internet has made it possible to experience life across great distances, the smartphone allows internet on the move. This project offers a new understanding of how locative media technology specifically impacts queer social and sexual encounters and queer spaces. Popular GPS-enabled smartphone apps including Tinder and Grindr play a valuable role in multiplying social and sexual networks for men seeking other men, but also provoke questions about their impact on space, embodiment and connectivity.

This thesis applies the concept of hybridisation to male-male locative apps to develop a new approach to research bridging technology and sexuality. A qualitative approach utilising semi-structured interviews with 36 male-male app users living and working in London, UK, reveals how locative media impact on 1) technological hybridisation, 2) social and sexual encounter, and 3) queer public and private spaces. I shift debates regarding online self-presentation into more embodied scenarios that explore daily practice for the hyperconnected user in a digitally enhanced but demonstrably physical context. Developments in technology mean that we are more ‘plugged-in’ than ever before, but this project contends that the benefits of locative media in expediting physical encounter are complicated by more ambiguous outcomes. The efficacy of geospatial partner scoping is often inhibited by extensive labour for the user, tendencies to addictive app use, and clashes in digital-physical hybridisation. Users express uncertainty regarding online social codes and difficulties in aligning motives with others for physical encounter. Locative apps also domesticate encounter into the private space of home, compounding the wider economic deconcentration of queer public venues. These ambivalences show that whilst sociotechnical hybridisation is ostensibly enriching, the journey to embodied encounter in the contemporary city is far from seamless.

Apps will come and go, but this thesis goes beyond the products themselves to argue that there are some important, very ‘human’ qualities to the now-commonplace hybridisation of digital (computers) and physical (‘real’ life) space. Humans have come to rely on technology to offer them something distinctive, and there are real benefits – but also some provocative caveats – to this sophisticated offering in how we live our lives.

I couldn’t have done it without my colleagues at Queen Mary University of London, my friends and my family – and most of all, the participants who gave up their time to let me interview them in great depth about their lives. Here is a screenshot of my acknowledgments – this time without the typo that I found after posting it on Facebook!

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For those participants who are reading, I’m in the process of developing an information summary of the project for you and I’m really excited to share with you some of the interesting trends that the work brought together in terms of what was commonly (or conversely, rarely expressed) amongst the larger group.

Meanwhile, I have a new article out in the Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society about my 2014 digital internship at the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). In the article I discuss the popularity of arts festivals in the UK and digital ‘staging’ as a way to enhance audience involvement with what they’re watching. The article is open access so anyone can view it, here. I loved my time at LIFT and applications are open for the next round of placements if you’re interested.

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Since PhD submission I’ve also got a job, as a research fellow in Social Science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. This a super-powered, research intensive university that I’ve always admired for its work on Ebola and Zika virus. I work in the Department of Social and Environmental Health, in which I’m learning all the time but finding – surprisingly – more crossover than I’d expected with human geography and technology. Lots of interesting work in the future on young-adult sexual health and family planning – and the opportunity for blogging some of our research, too. Watch this space (and this meme).

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Submission Day

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Fabulous! Motelism 2015 (to make up for not featuring as the PhD thesis cover)

I’ve been away for a while now, prioritising putting the finishing touches to my PhD, but today I bring good news… the thesis is submitted! It’s been a fascinating, mind-expanding and often confusing 4 year journey, but I’ve now contributed 99,000 words on my research project. That’s longer than some of the books on my nightstand (although possibly less suited to summer holiday reading)! Here is the finished product, with all three copies printed:

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The PhD journey isn’t yet finished – I have a viva voce still to come in several months, which is my verbal defence of the work I have done, and I am crossing my fingers that the examiners find the work submitted impactful and relevant. I can’t call myself Dr yet, but one of the things I like about academia is that it is not afraid to really test those who are hoping to reach the post-doctoral stage, so I’m putting plans in place already to think about what I need to think about in preparation for the viva in October.

As for the PhD, since several of you have asked: I investigated the role of locative media – that is, GPS-enabled mobile phone dating apps including Grindr and Tinder – on queer urban geographies. The research was based across social sciences – a bit of human geography, some queer theory, and even some technology studies (and I still can’t make excel spreadsheets proficiently, so I can’t vouch entirely for the PhD process). I wanted to analyse how new forms of technology that prioritise physical space rather than virtual connection impact minority populations – in this scenario, non-heterosexual men living and working in London, but equally the findings can be extrapolated to think more widely about how youth seek information online, or how sexual or ethnic minorities consider themselves as part of a community (or not). How do locative media influence interactions with the city, and how do users ‘hybridise’ their digital and physical relationships? What does ‘hyperconnection’ mean, and what do the daily experiences of technology users seeking social or sexual encounter look like?

This research is relevant to academic thinking on how humans think about and adopt mobile technologies into their daily practices. Essentially, I argue that we now integrate this kind of pervasive technology into our lived experience (phenomenology) to an unprecedented extent, and this has good outcomes – for example journey planning on the tube or bus – and more ambiguous outcomes – for example an ‘always on’ culture that leaves people desperate for a digital detox on their holidays. This research also presents interesting impacts for policy initiatives, such as how we communicate information from government, or how people seek sexual health advice online.

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When it comes to the queer theory part, the picture gets even more interesting. For one thing, these apps are bound up in the dissolving of once-popular LGBT venues in a city like London – lots has been written about this shift, but check out this Guardian article for a précis of the changes. However, I found that already-existing social and economic shifts probably play a larger role, certainly in large cities of the global north like London, Manchester and Madrid, to which apps contribute by dint of their popularity in the current dating environment. In the process, apps tend to make the home a concrete space for social or sexual connection, and for app users that has positive and negative repercussions.

The real highlight of this research for me was the volunteer time offered by 36 participants, whom I interviewed over one year. Their willingness to share their (often highly personal) stories with me really was the making of this research. I made sure my acknowledgements page really spoke to that, because I couldn’t have done this project without them. For anyone reading who was involved in the project, thank you again.

It was also really important to me to dedicate the PhD thesis to my friend Chris, who sadly died last year. Chris’s death prompted me to write this piece about the importance of expressing to our friends how much they mean to us, something that I think is vitally important. In the year since Chris’s death, I can testify that making sure your friends know how much they mean to you does nothing but good things. I recommend it to everyone. Show your friends they are loved! Chris is really missed by us all.

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Finally, I’m sure you’re all dying to have a read of the thesis, right?(!) I can’t share the work until the viva is completed, because that dictates what the finished product looks like. From there I am planning to write several academic and mainstream articles from the thesis that I hope will be of interest. Until then, you can read my recently-published article in Gender, Place & Culture if you have a University log-in. If not, email me via the ‘contact‘ tab of this blog and I’ll send you a PDF.

Thanks again to everyone who helped me get the PhD this far over the past 4 years, from institutional level – especially my supervisors Dr Regan Koch and Dr Yasmin Ibrahim at Queen Mary, University of London – to the friends and family (with a special mention to someone who already has Dr in front of her name – Laura, who turns 30 today!)

Sam Miles thesis handin collage

Next stop, examination.

What We Have Won(?): Sexuality, pride, and the gay health gap

 

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Motelism (2014)

[cw: suicide, mental health]

You might have read my recent post about cycling infrastructure in London and how policy campaigns increased cycling here (they really did, and I only hope it continues). I cited an excellent blog then by Michael Hobbes. He is also behind a story that has gone somewhat viral in the Huffington Post called ‘The Epidemic of Loneliness’ (I’m not sponsored to enthuse about him by the way; I’ve never even met him!). I’m linking you all the article because since I first read it this spring, I’ve revisited it a few times and found more things that really made me think. Other people must feel similarly because it’s generated a huge response (including a valid riposte by Slate). It’s an arresting, as well as provocative, piece of writing.

I think it’s an interesting piece for anyone, not just gay people, but be warned: the topics covered get a little intense. One thing Hobbes doesn’t touch on – and this is typical of media more widely in gay reportage – is that some of the riskier sexual practices and drug-taking behaviours (particularly chemsex) described are concerning but not statistically widespread. Even in urban centres like London, only a minority of non-heterosexual men participate in risky practices, but this tends to be over-reported because of the (possibly dubious) interests of writers and readers. My social sciences PhD actually covers that in some depth, so I feel confident in saying that you shouldn’t worry that every gay person you know is permanently drugged and hasn’t slept in 3 weeks. What is more interesting in this article is the larger environment of anxiety despite the supposed equality now enjoyed by gay men.

Hobbes’ argument is that despite all that gay men have won in the past few decades, many still aren’t happy. We know that in North America and Europe (what geographers often call the ‘global north’), drug use is higher than in the heterosexual population and sexual health is often poorer (striated further by different factors like socio-economic background, ethnicity, and access to healthcare), but mental health problems are also higher than straight men, and suicide rates significantly higher. After all:

Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.

 

Given that the London LGBT Pride festival hits town next weekend, I thought it would be interesting to share Hobbes’ article to give us a slightly different view of ‘how far we’ve come’ (I’m thinking here of The World We Have Won by Jeffrey Weeks, 2007). There are ongoing debates amongst queer theorists about the commercialisation vs. political power of pride parades. In short, some argue that the spirit of pride been lost in its creeping corporatisation, and that it is a shadow of its former political protest. Others argue: what’s the point in pride, when equality has now been won?

My (short) answer to both these views is: yes, it is true that to an extent pride has become commodified and commercialised, but such a shift is inevitable given that LGBT legislation has battled for integration into the mainstream. This assimilation comes with its own neoliberal conditions, and a parade needs to get sponsorship to ensure its viability in order to showcase less ‘fund-able’ or comfortable aspects of its queer message (which they do, albeit with mixed conviction – one of the better examples is showcasing small LGBT refugee charities, and supporting their ongoing work). To those who say the event is unnecessary, Pride remains a powerful visibilisation of queerness plus an opportunity to advocate on behalf of other, more marginalised groups including trans individuals, PoC and sexual minorities who are currently enduring more pernicious governmental or political rule elsewhere in the world.

Also, aside from its arguable political impact, Pride shows us that there is room for a global network of fun and enthusiastic social gathering that can claim the city for just a day for its sexual minorities. Politics and pleasure do not have to be mutually exclusive. Pride also helps communication between L,G,B and T individuals who are more often found apart and only occasionally brought together in any sense other than their abbreviating umbrella.

As Hobbes’ article shows, it may be specifically this lack of more regular, integrated socialisation opportunities that sees gay men continue to suffer the burden of poor mental health so disproportionately to the straight population. Hobbes under-interrogates the ethnic and class-based marginalisation operating within both gay and mainstream hierarchies, and only touches on other sexual identities, which is probably all we can expect in one article. But lest we forget, for other sexual minorities some of these mental health problems are multiplied: this week we learnt that over half of all trans school students in the U.K have attempted suicide. As Hobbes notes:

Any discussion of gay mental health has to start with what happens in schools. Despite the progress taking place around them, America’s educational institutions remain dangerous places for kids, filled with aspiring frat boys, indifferent teachers and retrograde policies. Emily Greytak, the director of research for the anti-bullying organization GLSEN, tells me that from 2005 to 2015, the percentage of teenagers who said they were bullied for their sexual orientation didn’t fall at all. Only around 30 percent of school districts in the country have anti-bullying policies that specifically mention LGBTQ kids, and thousands of other districts have policies that prevent teachers from speaking about homosexuality in a positive way.

This piece is by no means a scientific journal article, but it really latches on to some important issues.

I’m reminded of my post last autumn after the death of a friend about ongoing bonding with friends and family, the value of communication, and the importance of platonic intimacy in the face of a world that feels tough sometimes. Do remember to kiss your friends faces more (perhaps metaphorically; we are, after all, British).

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Youth, politics and the internet

Disastrous decisions Motelism Sam Miles blog
There’s so much news, all day, every day, it almost makes you wonder where you can start to make headway on it. Spare a thought for the journalists racing from crisis to crisis trying to get it covered.

I wanted to write this post – a treat to myself in the final writing up of my PhD – to share just one short video relevant to tomorrow’s UK General Election. Cassetteboy has previous good form when it comes to well-timed, thoughtful and ‘yoof’-friendly campaign videos – take your pick from David Cameron’s Eminem-style rap or a neat lapoon of Jeremy Hunt’s attitude to NHS strikes – but this is the best I can remember seeing. With 5 million Facebook views in just 24 hours, it seems that a lot of you share that view. For those of you without Facebook (they exist!) you can see a version here.

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This 2-and-a-half-minute précis of Theresa May’s failed initiatives, morally bankrupt policies and disdain for British public services gets right to the heart of the issue in an election where the Conservative campaign has been more about smearing the opponent than putting forward their own tenable ideas for social, political, or even – in a post-Brexit, post-austerity age, both managed under Conservative leadership! – economic change.

I say ‘they’, but clearly the Tories have seen the inexplicable (but perhaps waning) popularity of Theresa May in the leadership role and as a result telescoped most of the campaign to her and her alone. I’d be hard-pressed to think of Tory names in the running for her future cabinet, and the guest appearances from Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley have done little to suggest that bringing other Tory figures into the running would finesse the campaign approach. If you’re expressing confusion about Karen Bradley, rest assured that I hadn’t heard of her either. It says a lot about the Tory attitude to culture and the arts in Brexit Britain that the Tory manifesto barely covers some of these themes, even in relation to education (which is its own unique disaster, evidenced by the school on my street having to cut the length of its school day). Bradley deserves some sympathy for having to rationalise cuts to police numbers – hardly her expertise – on live TV in the suspicious absence of May. Rudd meanwhile buried her father 48 hours before appearing in the BBC General Election debate, making May’s insistence on stand-ins all the more laughable.

Leadership involves, you know, presenting your ideas to the public: inviting feedback and listening to concerns. Whereas Corbyn’s team seem to have finally coached themselves on speeches, outreach and debate – and improved dramatically as a result, albeit not across the board – May is more leaden than ever, seemingly comfortable only when attacking the opposition or boosted by bigger personalities. Her terrible negotiating skills and singularly uncharismatic sociability should ring alarm bells for her capabilities in negotiating Brexit, and yet so many members of the voting public seem willing to run that risk. Is a bad Brexit better than no Brexit?

It also says a lot about this election that it was announced just 7 weeks ago (rather contradicting May’s argument that a general election is not in the best interests of the British people) already feels like it’s gone on for years. This is because it has been engineered by a ruling party uninterested in the transformative power of politics. An election campaign that does nothing to offer its own roadmap for an imagined future is no campaign at all. If the Tories win tomorrow’s election it will be in spite of, rather than because of, their work, and younger voters in particular will have a hard time aligning the politics they saw happen and the opportunities for change left untaken.

Crisis after crisis has piled on in recent weeks, and yet May’s response as the leader of the country has been repeatedly found lacking. The gall of the Prime Minister complaining this week about extremism in the UK after 5 years as Home Secretary tasked with tackling exactly those issues says it all. How exactly does her promise to tear up the Human Rights Act really tackle the root causes of homegrown terrorism, and why aren’t more people pointing out that the Hillsborough Disaster inquiry has this exact legislation to thank for the overdue investigation into the police and government cover-up? Why does May consistently fail to speak out against Donald Trump’s increasingly damaging geopolitical fiascos, including the Paris Climate Agreement, and why has she not more convincingly defended the hard work of Sadiq Khan after Trump’s repeated criticisms?

This year has felt like the end of days sometimes when it comes to the global stage, and it is youth who will suffer from the egotistical machinations of older leaders and voters. At least the age group most involved in ubiquitous technology are those best placed to act on what they learn through online content when it comes to the ballot box. Bouyed by the age-divide in Brexit voting, my only hope is that today’s young voters will maintain their tolerance and their thoughtful outlook on the issues affecting our society not just in our current political climate, but as they age over the years to come.

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I wanted to end this post with a note to say how saddened I was to learn that Martyn Hett was a victim of the Manchester terror attack, one of the funniest people you could possibly follow on social media and a some-time writer for Huffington Post and Attitude magazine. Even the Telegraph (the Telegraph! no lover of tattoos, Buzzfeed or gay culture) gave a nod to his infectious humour. You can read one of Martyn’s own articles, on internal homophobia here, and his Buzzfeed tribute to his mum’s craft work, which has since gone very very viral, here. My friend Alistair Bealby, a fellow blogger, has just published a fantastic Guardian piece on the impact of Martyn’s death and his mission to #BeMoreMartyn here. Finally, I have Martyn to thank for the Mariah Carey meme that my blog sported exactly a year ago in the run-up to the EU membership referendum. Here it is again for you to enjoy:

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London cycling, social change and urban geography

 

Just a quick post this week, but an apt piece to share with you, given the lengthening days into summer.

This is a really interesting article about the policies (and failures) underpinning London’s growing cycling trend, which as a London cyclist I’ve been following with interest over the past few years (not least the ever-growing debate on helmet wearing – I’m a helmet wearer myself, but always interested to hear other views). But back to cycling itself: go to central London at rush hour and you’ll be amazed at the density of cycle commuting going on, helped in places by dedicated cycle provision, and hindered in others by the ongoing difficulties of shifting an urban infrastructure to shared modes of transportation.

In terms of urban geography, cycling is a fascinating topic of study – during my north American conference trip last month, I was pleasantly surprised to find fully established state-funded cycle schemes not just in New York and Toronto, whose density would suggest that this kind of offering can be implemented without hassle, but in Boston and Miami too. There are questions to ask here about who uses these schemes (Tourists or commuters?) and for what purpose – just weekend leisure, or daily commutes that mitigate against more polluting journeys by other residents? There is a lot of talk about cycling reaching ‘critical mass’ in cities – some argue that we are already there, but others argue that outside London, UK cities are less cycle-friendly than ever, not least in that drivers seem to be now joined by pedestrians in their complaints about poor cycling behaviour.

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A little calmer than cycling the Old Street roundabout

What is interesting about this article (and I don’t agree with everything in it, but then that is no reason not to find valuable content in it, right?) is the persuasive argument that policy initiatives with this kind of change really do seem to come down to money. The environmental factors, the health benefits (yes, the health boost of urban cycling does still outweigh air pollution in all but the most polluted cities), the improved efficiency in road density: those are collateral. In a neoliberal city infrastructure predicated on continuing development, money remains – and it seems will likely persist as – the central driver(!).

You can read the whole piece below.

 

When I lived in London 10 years ago, biking to work was almost unheard of. I remember a colleague of mine, the only cyclist I knew, rolling up her pantleg, lifting her shirt, to show me all her scars.

Since then, though, cycling has nearly doubled, and is expected to surpass driving in just three years.

cycling revolution

London has—visibly, significantly—become friendlier for cyclists. The bike-hire scheme, the bright blue “cycle superhighways,” you even see tourists and kids out cycling now. I started biking on my work-trips to London about six years ago, and it seems like every time I visit, there’s more quietways, better signs, (slightly) nicer drivers, fewer close calls.

I am perplexed by how this happened. All the arguments for cycling to work—cheaper, less pollution, more exercise—applied as much a decade ago as they do now. So why have they suddenly found purchase?

As far as I can tell, the…

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Chasing the tail of Brexit

I’ve been considering whether to write about Brexit. So much to say in one sense, but so little to comment on in terms of actual developments, 9 months in. There have at least been a succession of empty sound bites from government, added to this week by a truly messy BBC Question Time Brexit special (which UK viewers can watch on iPlayer, here)… it’s enough to make you pull your hair out.

But it would be remiss of me to ignore the debate today: the day that the UK signs ‘Article 50’. A chance, I’m sure, for nationalists patriots to mark with fervour, with a blurry idea of what it is they’re actually celebrating – not entirely their fault, given the opacity of how Brexit is progressing on a governmental level. The more fringe quarters of the rightwing press are crowing about ‘our’ very own ‘Independence Day’. It is dubbed, somewhat clumsily, ‘E-day‘ (all your trigger warnings come at once: it’s a Daily Mail link). I mean, I quip about fringe quarters of the press, but The Daily Mail is the UK’s most-read newspaper with circulation figures of 2 million, making it the 4th-most read English language newspaper in the world. Lovely.

British EU desks

‘Taking back control’

It is at least true that signing Article 50 will trigger the extrication of the UK from the European Union. But this triggering is not really a ‘breaking free’ in any significant sense. In fact it is more like the reverse of a ‘taking back control’ promised to the electorate. It is a capitulation of British interests, money and co-operative policy structures built over half a century, in a ham-fisted attempt to assuage a misguided postcolonial crisis of identity. *Breathes deeply*. Take what you can from the humour of the BBC show; there’s nothing funny about our real Little Britain. Article 50 represents the start, not the end, of an interminably long political negotiation to decide how European trade and movement will work in the future. According to Whitehall policy staff, there are 700 separate areas to disentangle. It’s like a large-scale divorce: only in this divorce, there is little precedent for what should happen, and an awful lot at stake for people outside the marriage itself.

As for what the relationship between Britain and the EU will look like in the future, that will remain unclear for longer still: the first negotiations will only be able to deal with Britain’s actual departure. Britain has been told by the EU it has outstanding financial commitments of around €60 billion to pay. We don’t seem to be in a particularly strong position to argue against that, seeing as our ‘side’ still needs to secure future lucrative trade deals with the bloc in the wake of, err, those trade deals we’re about to lose with our EU membership. Why would other European countries allow Britain the same or even similar access to their trade offering when Britain isn’t willing to abide by the tenets of EU membership? We can’t have our cake and eat it too, as Philip Hammond noted this morningContra bluster from British tabloids about our country’s refusal to bend to the will of European plutocrats (itself a claim with something of the echo chamber about it: MP’s expenses, anyone? Tory fraud scandal? House of Lords paid non-attendance?) David Davis has actually already admitted that yes, we will have to pay up. Brexit: so far, so messy.

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That red bus

Paying €60 billion rather dwarfs the red bus brigade that claimed £350 million per week went into the EU. In fact, the latter figure has been disproven anyway, not least because of the value of reciprocal income. But €60 billion also pales into insignificance when you consider the £220 billion worth of exports alone we currently sell to EU countries every year, as well as the same – more, in fact – bought via our imports from EU countries. Those will be compromised when we lose unilateral trade agreements for at least the period of negotiations, if not longer. Sure, we can work through policy that tries to shore up some of this trade, as well as looking to other countries to stem the gulf – but that takes time and, surprise! – money. These are complicated and in all likelihood, protracted, negotiations that voters last summer were truly in the dark about: either because they didn’t think about it or they weren’t equipped with the information to do so effectively.

For those with buyer’s remorse, the £350 million saved per week can go to the NHS though, right? Apart from nothing’s come through yet. The claim is now abandoned by the very people who made it, and in real terms, NHS spending is actually down. Even where NHS spending may increase, adjusting for inflation shows that it won’t rise as much as suggested, and non-NHS health services face disproportionate cuts. ‘Leave’ voters should rightly be furious.

Us vs. Them

What was interesting about this week’s BBC Question Time Brexit special was not so much the political performances but the audience. Again and again, what people complained about/were worried about/made uninformed assumptions about… was immigration. In case we were in any doubt, Brexit was for many people a protest vote to reduce immigration. The fact that the EU is represents only half of inward movement of people to the UK is besides the point to these voters, who just want less of it and do not feel they are given opportunities to make that heard: and so they used our European membership referendum as their direct line.

On an economic basis, complaints about the drain of migrants have been repeatedly proven unfounded, as this excellent Movehub infographic shows (full version in link, albeit only measuring up to 2012). In fact, EU migrants are of greater benefit to the UK than non-EU migrants. They are mostly young, working, and paying taxes. But good luck countering feelings with facts. Until we listen to voters’ concerns and where they come from – whether emotionally or practically – they will not feel listened to. Through it all, Brexit is kicked jerkily into action despite its at-best tangential relevance to the issues that are really at stake for a disadvantaged electorate.

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Political rhetoric, course 101

What now? Well, no-one really knows still. David Davis may bluster about the solid 9 months of work done by his department to set things up for disentangling itself from the EU (incidentally, the department is rather refreshingly titled ‘The Department for Exiting the European Union’ – no acronyms here, pals). But a smooth ride hardly seems likely given the myriad aspects needing consideration, from economics and trade to constitutions, binding and non-binding policy regulation. Think of the headache involved in deciding the rights that should be afforded to EU nationals currently resident in the UK, and Brits abroad.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: this whole Brexit scenario was an avoidable crisis, manufactured and stoked by egotistical politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson who enjoyed their soapbox without having to take ultimate responsibility. It will swallow money, human resources and focus from other crucially important issues that do need political action and do deserve the focus of British voters. There’s plenty wrong with the EU, but the union has stepped up its efforts to better rationalise processes in the interests of cost-saving and efficiency. It seems to me far better to be part of an like-minded, established bloc with half a century of experience than going it alone in a global age of economic uncertainty, compounded by shifting geopolitical allegiances that threaten civil unrest at any time.

Sure, at times we have invested more into the EU than we were getting out; but such disproportionate political grandstanding to exit a union that has done a lot of good seems all the more surreal when you consider the £31 billion we are paying to renew Trident. Let’s call it what it is – a nuclear deterrent for a small country with dwindling impact on the world stage. Using the euphemism of ‘Trident’ lets us get away without consideration of what nuclear armament, with all its consequences, really means. Still: might come in useful in a future where our European allies are rather colder in their diplomatic collateral.

What I’m saying is: I know we’re supposed to get behind these political machinations now. I know that ‘Brexit means Brexit‘ (but what, exactly, is Brexit?). I know that there will be unenviable work done by incredibly dedicated civil servants here and on the continent to hammer out a mutually beneficial (or mutually palatable) contract over several years. But as an ideological exercise, it remains a misguided, manipulative endeavour and a case study for Political Rhetoric 101. A GCSE history class could pick apart the political motivations for rolling out Brexit at a time of hardening social attitudes, rising nationalism, structural inequality and enforced (and demonstrably ineffective) austerity measures.

In 10 years, when we see an arms-length Europe and a privatised NHS, I don’t think school classes will have any problem in linking the patterns together to show how a perfect storm of misplaced patriotism and lies came together to exacerbate both.

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This really does say it all.

International Women’s Day round-up

I’m up to my neck in deadlines at the moment, so I’ll keep it short and sweet, but today is International Women’s Day and it is more important than ever to celebrate the event. The theme of this year’s celebration is ‘be bold for change’ – a manifesto we can all get behind in a global political climate that remains perilous. The statue of Liberty went unlit last night in an unplanned power cut, and you don’t need me to explain the symbolism 101 happening right there.

statue of liberty dark Sam Miles blog

To round-up some of the writing marking today’s importance, I’m reblogging three solid but concise pieces in The Guardian. 

  • Rebecca Solnit argues that silence and powerlessness goes hand in hand, which means it is more important than ever to speak out [whether talking, campaigning, maybe even blogging!] to keep politics progressing. Read more here.

    silence by Nathalie Lees Sexuality and the City blog Sam Miles

    Picture credit: Nathalie Lees

  • As a one-time expat in Madrid, Spain myself, I found Sam Jones’ article about women silenced by the 20th-century Franco regime fascinating. These artists, writers and scientists are finally getting the recognition they deserve. Read more here.

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    Elena Fortún memorial plaque

  • Finally, Molly Redden problematises the International Women’s Day campaign ‘A World Without Women’ by asking who it is for – it seems likely that those facing economic precarity aren’t going to be able to strike or take unpaid leave as easily as others. Read more here. (NB: the subheading, ‘feminism is having a mainstream moment’, isn’t very helpful, but I’m blaming that on the subeditor).

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    Photo credit: Shannon Staples/Reuters

Elsewhere, the Guardian has a rolling live news stream of International Women’s Day events, which seems to me an impressive commitment to a range of coverage, including protest.

I know I probably sound like a newspaper employee by this point, but it’s amongst the better of the media platforms I’ve seen today. Highly commended goes to Buzzfeed, for accessible coverage including links out to women writers from the Global South, with some fantastic photography – read more here.

Happy International Women’s Day!